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Piece of Uncle Ho history surfaces in London

Update: May, 21/2007 - 00:00

Piece of Uncle Ho history surfaces in London

"Nothing of importance...": This hand-drawn map by Ho Chi Minh shows the location of underground trade unions. — Photo courtesy of Lady Borton

(20-05-2007)

by Lady Borton

Sometimes, what is of little interest or value to one person is a treasure to another. Perhaps we can say that of a map hand-drawn by President Ho in the early 1930s and published for the first time by The Gioi (World) Publishers in Ho Chi Minh: A Journey. If the truth be known, I might have overlooked this small gem in the British National Archives had colleagues at the Ho Chi Minh Museum not noticed a translation mistake I’d made while in Ha Noi a few days before.

The Ho Chi Minh Museum was rushing to finish up The Legal Case Against Nguyen Ai Quoc (Ho Chi Minh) in Hong Kong, 1931-1933: Documents and Photographs, which contains excerpts from a handwritten draft of Vua Di Duong Vua Ke Chuyen (Stories told on the trail) by T. Lan. Ho Chi Minh had used the pseudonym T. Lan and the voice of a cadre accompanying President Ho in September 1950 to the Border Campaign for Stories Told on the Trail, which was first published in book form in 1963.

One of the editors of The Legal Case spotted my mistake: I had translated the excerpts from Stories about Ho Chi Minh’s arrest in Hong Kong, using comparable text in the published autobiography, not Ho Chi Minh’s handwritten version. Back to my desk I went. Magnifying glass in hand, I examined President Ho’s handwriting in each excerpt and revised the translations to fit his handwritten draft.

A few days later, I was ensconced in the British National Archives near Kew Gardens on the outskirts of London. This is my favourite archive for ease of access, efficiency of service, respectful silence in the reading rooms, and staff protection of documents. Should I forget and set a book of bound documents directly on my work table, a uniformed guard will graciously present me with a book cradle made of foam. If ever I should lick my forefinger to speed the turning of pages, another guard will tap me gently on the shoulder. And so, I was paging carefully through a thick volume, although without great attention.

Working in an archive is different from a library. Librarians who catalogue books assign a unique number to each volume. In contrast, archivists who catalogue boxes of assorted documents may use approximate labels like the vague notes found on boxes long forgotten in an attic. Researchers in archives learn to look through every document in a box because they never know what they might find. Indeed, several other documents published for the first time in Ho Chi Minh: A Journey were surprises I discovered while searching for something else.

That particular morning in the British Archives, I was looking through Foreign Office files about Hilaire Noulens, a key Comintern (Communist International) staff whom police had arrested in Shanghai three days after Ho Chi Minh was apprehended in Hong Kong. Noulens’ apartment contained documents Ho Chi Minh had written. Now, looking through the assorted 1930s files, I glanced first at the cover sheets giving file dates, contents, and an evaluation by Foreign Office staff at the time of archiving. Then I carefully turned through the pages. Suddenly, I gasped. My tablemates looked up, startled. I murmured an apology and stared.

There, in the foam cradle before me lay a map of the Malay Peninsula and parts of An Nam (Viet Nam), Siam (Thailand), Borneo, and Java. This was an original document that had been hand-drawn in colour pencil and labeled "Copie" in blue pencil at the top. The legend was in English and Chinese. I knew instantly that Ho Chi Minh had drawn the map, yet this was only an intuitive response. I wondered: Would whatever I had "seen" stand up to logic and scholarship?

I turned back to the cover sheet and looked at the dates: November 18, 1931 – December 30, 1931. I knew that before Ho Chi Minh’s arrest in Hong Kong the previous June he had been responsible for Comintern organising on the Malay Peninsula. This map showed the location of Trade Unions, which were probably Comintern front organisations. The logic of time and contents fit, while the lack of specificity for the Trade Union sites had no doubt led to the Foreign Office evaluation written on the cover sheet: "Nothing of very great interest or importance in this."

I pulled out my magnifying glass, grateful that my mistake a few days before had required I scrutinise President Ho’s handwriting. I looked at the "A" in "An Nam" and the "S’s" in "Siam" and "Sumatra" and recognised them as familiar. Then I examined the ’s" in "Bangkok", "Borneo", "Burma", and "Batawa" (Java). Surely, those "B’s" were the same handwriting as the "B’s" in "Bac" (Uncle), the name Ho Chi Minh (T. Lan) had used when referring to himself in his handwritten version of Stories Told on the Trail.

I made photocopies of the map and took digital photographs. I was sufficiently sure of the authorship that I showed the map to the British Archives’ staff photographer, explained my guess, and arranged for a professional photograph. Once back in Ha Noi, I took that photograph to the Ho Chi Minh Museum. We were discussing "A’s" and "B’s" and "S’s" when the Museum director ducked out of the room. In a few minutes, she returned with the specialist in Ho Chi Minh’s Chinese texts. He examined the legend and confirmed that the Chinese characters were indeed written by Ho Chi Minh. I was amazed: It had never occurred to me that pen strokes in Chinese are as idiosyncratic as a writer’s cursive script in English.

Years had passed since the period between 1929 and mid-1931, when Ho Chi Minh drew the map. Those of us sitting around the table at the Ho Chi Minh Museum could enjoy a good laugh at a newly discovered treasure – an old document the British Foreign Office had once considered "Nothing of very great interest or importance". — VNS

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